Thus far, we’ve had a series of discussions that focused on the construction of the Fairy World, and how that world is made an immersive experience. This past class, we came across the first serious question that Fairy Worlds may make on the Primary Reality as we know it: how Tolkien conceptualized the relationship between the Fairy World and history. We have seen multiple examples of Tolkien and his characters discussing it. In Letter 183, “I am historically minded. Middle-Earth is not an imaginary world”. Again, in letter 131, as a note about the creative process: “it proved to be the discovery of the completion of the whole, its mode of descent to Earth, and merging into ‘history’”. In the Notion Club Papers, “Sometimes, I have a queer feeling that, if one could go back, one would not find myth dissolving into history, but rather the opposite: real history becoming mythical”. To accept this claim opens a whole series of problems that revolve around a central point: how can we trust history, and use historical claims in a variety of contexts if we cannot be sure it actually occurred?
This, on some level, feels like the most radical of postmodernist positions on historical knowledge. Regardless of when history occurs, we may never have absolute knowledge of how and why it occurred. Both these absences create political vacuums in which history can be used to legitimize a variety of narratives. History never operates purely as an apolitical force—it comprises a form of ideology that maintains a sense of power within individuals and societies. As Constantin Fasolt noted, “It is a weapon that was invented on a battlefield, a dangerous form of knowledge that can do harm to both its subjects and its practitioners”.
How this harm manifests itself is less in the operation of the events themselves (the historicity of the events, we might say) and more how these events are structured in narrative. There is a perfect example of this process within Farmer Giles. Within this account, we gain a crucial piece of information when Garm ran through the town: “Come out! Come out! Come out! Get up! Get up! Come and see my great master! He is bold and quick. He is going to shoot a giant for trespassing. Come out!”. This account gave a certain context for these words—namely, that Farmer Giles was not sure he was going out to shoot a giant. In fact, it is explicitly stated that he felt neither bold nor quick. This is the sort of record that creates a dangerous situation. We are aware that the villagers knew nothing of Farmer Giles’ dumb luck. Should a villager write a chronicle of King Aegidus, it would offer a complete misinterpretation of his ascendance to political power. Yet, to the historian who has such a chronicle, alongside the story of Farmer Giles, there is a decision that needs to be made. And that decision will also have impact on future political and legal claims made revolving around the kingdom.
Tolkien had to be aware of these sorts of issues. And it is in the tension between these decisions that he posited his work as “historical”. For instance, also found in Letter 131: “Myth and Fairy Story must, as all art, reflect and contain solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world”, and, in reference to his derivation of the stories from language: This gives a certain character (a cohesion, a consistency of linguistic style, and an illusion of historicity)”. I would further suggest that while Tolkien thought of his work as “historical”, that is not the same as thinking it History.
With that distinction made, I think we are in a better place to consider the connection between Tolkien’s Secondary World, and our own Primary World. The Notion Club Papers, in my mind, are the most important link in this connection. From my understanding, the papers are discovered in 2012, and serve as an archive to connect Middle-Earth with the time the papers were written. By situating the papers as a historical object, Tolkien is making a very specific claim about history as mediator. We do not have a rumor that someone said something about Númenor—there is an explicit written reference to the episode. Further, they are accidentally discovered. Tolkien may be suggesting that there always exists a possibility of discovering such a collection of papers within the Primary World.
This is not done because Tolkien mistook his construction as History. It is done as an integral element for Fantasy. What makes Fantasy persuasive is its ability to use rational thought to render the self-consistencies of such a world acceptable. This, Tolkien admits is much harder to do with no connection to the real world. Thus, he is able to render the history of Middle-Earth legible, if it is somehow connected to us. An immediate example of this legibility is how both The Hobbit, and Lord of the Rings are referred to as translations of the Red Book of Westmarch. If we conceive of these adventures as not part of our World (and thus, not part of our History), then there is no reason why a translation of them should exist, and we might as well learn Westron or Elvish if we would like to understand Middle-Earth.
I’ve discussed the distinction between historical and history, as well as how Tolkien sought to relate the historical to a form of history. Much like how Tolkien’s world may be historical without being history, our world can be fantastical without being fantasy. Two examples: first, the Silmarillion began with the description of a Great Music, from which we trace Creation and the Fall of Melkor. This forms a soteriology by which we understand the transcendence of the good Ainur over Melkor, and how divine blessing understood being cleaved to the One, in some capacity. This soteriology of the Great Music is much like forms of founding myths in a variety of regions. I personally thought of Augustine’s discussion about the harmony of angels, but one may see parallels in Hesiod’s Theogony or the records of Indigenous conceptions of Creation.
Second is the structure of the Line of Elros. In this document, we see specific claims about political structures, and forms of legitimacy within the brief narratives of the Kings and Queens. Such genealogies that mix the real with the mythical are also common within the Classical and Medieval traditions. Making such historical claims rendered serious political power, as a brief glance at the varying struggles over control of the Holy Roman Empire would demonstrate. These are examples that Tolkien might say are how we interact with our Primary World in a fantastical way. The past, much like Middle-Earth, is a land we cannot directly access. The role of the historian is to attempt an explanation from what is extant, but under no pretense is that the same as absolute knowledge. Our constructions, in this sense, very much parallel the work of a good Sub-creator.
Peter Novick, in That Noble Dream stated “One approach to the idea of historical objectivity is to think of the idea as ‘myth’”. I mention this because it brings to light the serious nature of the relationship between history and myth, as well as producing an alternative to what seems to be a choice between “history is myth” and “history and myth are definitively separate”. We may consider that the goal of a functional history is not to present a series of absolute claims, but rather, navigate a series of “plausible interpretations” in the words of Eugen Weber. Tolkien’s intervention represents an interpretation. Whether it is plausible is another story.
 Ed. Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (New York: Mariner Books, 2005), page 239.
 Ibid, page 145.
 Tolkien, J. R. R. and Tolkien, Christopher Sauron Defeated: The End of the Third Age (the History of the Lord of the Rings, Part Four) (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992) page 227.
 Fasolt, Constantin, The Limits of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004) page 4.
 Tolkien, J.R.R. The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine Books, 1978) page 133.
 Ibid, page 132.
 Carpenter, The Letters, page 143. Emphases are mine.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”, page 6.
 Tolkien, J.R.R. and Tolkien, Christopher, The Silmarillion (New York: Mariner Books, 2001), pages 15-18.
 Novick, Peter, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical
Profession. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988) page 3.
 Weber, Eugen. A Modern History of Europe: Men, Cultures and Societies from the Renaissance to the Present (New York: Norton & Co. Inc, 1971), page 1125.